Bird Man of Okinawa
Takashi Nagamine is a veterinarian trying to save the Okinawa Rail from extinction.
Takashi Nagamine was born in Gushikawa City, Okinawa. He studied veterinary science at Nihon University, worked as a vet in Saitama prefecture for 11 years, and then returned to his hometown. In 2001, he set up Nagamine Animal Hospital where he treats the everyday ailments of local pets, and also injured wild animals from all over Okinawa.
What types of wild animals does your hospital receive?
“We get 150 to 200 cases a year, and these cover a wide range of species from the Crested Serpent-Eagle to the Okinawa Rail. Some animals have been injured by power lines or cars; others have been poisoned by pesticides.”
What kind of bird is the Okinawa Rail?
“The local name is the Yanbaru-kuina. It’s a small bird, about the size of a man’s hand, or a little larger than a pigeon. It was only discovered in 1981, because it is naturally a very shy bird. It is also the only flightless bird in Japan, which is one of the reasons that it is now endangered.
How many Okinawa Rails are there?
“The latest estimates are that there only 717 of the birds on Okinawa, and as it is endemic to the island, these are the last 717 individuals of this species in the world.”
Why are there so few of the birds left?
“There are several problems. The loss of habitat due to logging and the division of the remaining land by roads means there is smaller area in which the birds can live. Stray cats kill some birds, but the number one issue we need to deal with are the mongooses. In 1910, 19 mongooses were introduced from India to try to control the poisonous habu snakes. There are now more than 30,000 mongooses on the island. They have no natural predators, and the Okinawa Rail is easy prey. It’s particularly ironic because habu are nocturnal and mongoose are diurnal, so it was a bad idea from the start. ”
If the bird can’t fly and can’t defend itself, isn’t it just natural selection for it to disappear?
“The Okinawan ecosystem has always been in a delicate balance. The natural predators of the Okinawa Rail – the habu and jungle crows – were only able to kill a small number of the birds. Mongooses and domestic cats are foreign species that have upset this balance. If extinction were to occur, is wouldn’t be at all natural.”
What can be done to save the Okinawa Rail?
“In 2005, the Conservation Animal Welfare Trust was formed, and a rescue center was set up in Kunigami Village. At the center we provide injured birds with first aid, transport them to the animal hospital in Gushikawa, and there perform x-rays and surgery. The birds are returned to the rescue center where they can recover, before being released back into the wild. We also have a breeding program, with birds that we were unable to re-release, so far six chicks have hatched. The main problem, however, is still the large numbers of mongooses. The only long term solution is to remove all the mongooses from the area where the Okinawan Rail live. To do this we would need to build a fence across the northern part of the island, and catch every single mongoose north of it. ”
Are you optimistic about the future?
“It’s a very worrying, if not desperate situation, but I’m not willing to give up. I expect, in the near future, the numbers of birds will continue to drop. I do believe, however, we can save the Yanbaru-kuina from extinction. We just have to return Okinawa to its natural ecological balance.”
(Interview first published in Okinawa Living Magazine March 2007)
The Conservation & Animal Welfare Trust has a website at http://www.yanbarukuina.jp/